Hizb's top man Reyaz Naikoo killed by security forces, mobile phones and mobile internet suspended in Valley

Srinagar, May 6 (PTI) Hizbul Mujahideen’s de facto chief and one of Kashmir’s most wanted terrorists Reyaz Naikoo was on Wednesday killed by security forces in his village in Pulwama district, prompting authorities to suspend mobile phones and mobile internet across the Valley.

The 35-year-old maths teacher turned terrorist, with a Rs 12 lakh bounty on his head, had successfully escaped the dragnet for eight years. But his luck finally ran out when he was shot dead after a five-hour gunbattle in restive Pulwama’s Beighbpora village, about 40 km from here, police said.

Security forces engaged with militants in two simultaneous gunbattles in Pulwama, one in Sharshalli village where two unidentified militants were killed and the other in Beighpora in Awantipora where they finally put down Naikoo who was holed up with another terrorist.

His accomplice attempted to escape by charging towards security forces and opening indiscriminate fire but was also killed in the encounter, which led to clashes as people started pelting stones at security personnel.

Two people sustained bullet injuries but were taken to hospital and were stable, officials said.

The four bodies would not be handed over to the families in accordance with the new protocol in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic and would be buried by police, they said.

The gunning down of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, a major breakthrough in the fight against terror, comes three days after eight security personnel, including two Army officers Colonel Ashutosh Sharma and Major Anuj Sood, were killed in Handwara on May 3.

The incidents of violence come amid a lockdown in the Valley and elsewhere in the country to curtail the spread of COVID-19 and also during the month of Ramzan.

Giving details of the successful operation, officials said security forces zeroed in on Naikoo’s hideout on Tuesday. But instead of  initiating an immediate operation, they first fortified their cordon around the area and plugged all escape routes so he could not escape as he had done thrice earlier.

Only then did they begin the actual operation to flush out the terrorist, who was categorised as A++ (top terrorist) and was known to be tech savvy, frequently posting audio and video clips on social media to motivate youth towards militancy and draw in more recruits to his outfit.

At dawn, Army units were pushed along with the special operations group of Jammu and Kashmir Police, the officials said. A gunfight broke out after Naikoo and his accomplice fired at the security personnel.

CRPF and police forces also laid an outer cordon to keep the public away from the encounter site. Security forces also checked the railway line along the village following reports that he had dug a tunnel from his hideout to help him escape. This, however, turned out to be a rumour, said a senior police officer from ground zero.

A police spokesperson said earlier in the morning that a top terrorist commander along with an accomplice was trapped in an encounter but did not reveal his identity. Later in the day, officials disclosed that the man in their sights was Naikoo, the man they had been looking for for eight years.

The bespectacled Naikoo became the de facto chief of the banned Hizbul Mujahideen after the death of Burhan Wani, the poster boy of militancy in the Valley, in July 2016.

Naikoo, who had 11 FIRs against him, masterminded the revival of the Hizbul Mujahideen and often released videos and audios with pro-Pakistan and separatist propaganda, officials said. He also executed a series of attacks on security forces, including policemen, and civilians.

He is alleged to have brutally killed civilians after branding them as informers. He also looted orchard owners and farmers to collect funds for his outfit besides collecting cash from illicit cultivation of opium and 'bhang' in south Kashmir, officials said. His outfit figured in a narco trade case in Jammu where a huge sum of sale proceeds was transferred to one of his contacts.

Naikoo's death must not used as an excuse by some to put more people in 'harm's way by provoking violence and protests', former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah said on Twitter.   Abdullah said Naikoo’s destiny was decided the moment he picked up the gun and adopted the path of violence and terror.

In the separate encounter at Sharshali village, two militants, who are yet to be identified, were gunned down in an encounter with security forces.

Acting on a tip-off about the presence of militants in the village, security forces launched a cordon and search operation. It turned into an encounter after militants opened fire towards security forces' positions, officials said.

The forces retaliated, killing the two militants, they said. PTI MIJ SKL MIN MIN